After spending all or most of your money at the local theme parks, what do you do with the rest of your vacation? Families and others who find that being a tourist here is synonymous with thin wallets might consider the free sights in the world's premier tourist attraction. If you've visited lately, you might think any notion of free is a Disney fantasy. And don't misunderstand. While a lot of hotels and attractions have supposedly "free" offers, what they mean is that if you book, say, two nights in a hotel, you get a third night "free." Not accurate because you have to first buy two nights to get a third. What we're referring to here is really "free," no strings attached.
There's no better place to start than usually pricey Walt Disney World. Surprised? Take a trip to the attraction's BoardWalk near the Swan and Dolphin Hotels. It's reminiscent of Atlantic City's own famous wooden pathway. You can sit on benches and watch the passing parade.
More people watching? Posh Park Avenue in Winter Park is the area's version of Rodeo Drive with a leafy park where you can sit on benches, watch the passing parade of people and feed the squirrels. Remember as you go through the trendy stores that you don't have to buy.
No-Cost Galleries & Museums
There are things to see all year round at the Fort Christmas Historical Park & Museum (407/568-4149), which features a traditional Florida "Cracker" house and a replica of a fort built during the Seminole Indian Wars more than a century ago. Visitors can also view a sugar cane hill and historical farming equipment. Native American artifacts are among the attractions at the Museum of Seminole County History ( 407/665-2489), which also has a picture gallery, a country store and assorted historical documents.
You have to pay to get into many art centers, but not the cozy one at Rollins College in the area's premier suburb, Winter Park. Exhibits are top quality at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum ( 407/646-2526), which features 6,000 objects with the oldest collection in the state of European and American paintings, sculpture and decorative arts. It's open daily except for Mondays.
In nearby Eatonville, a town founded and inhabited solely by African-Americans, you can learn about its most famous resident at the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts ( 407/647-3307). The well-known writer was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. As a visitor, you might skip classes at the Maitland Art Center ( 407/539-2181), but the facility listed as a Florida historic site also has always-changing exhibits and attractive gardens that kids will enjoy.
Other free museums include the Bradlee-McIntyre House (407/332-0225), a 13-room Queen Anne-style home in the historic district of Longwood, another suburban area.
Not far away, there's also the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center ( 407/628-0555), which takes visitors through the pre-World War II hardships of Jewish communities in Europe. Key events and documentary evidence are presented in multi-media form with many personal histories that vividly present the tragic events.
Folk art is the centerpiece of the Pine Castle Folk Arts Center in Orlando. The grounds and buildings provide visitors a look at the arts, skills, lifestyles and craftsmanship of early Floridians. Note that you need to call for an appointment to see the museum ( 407/855-7461). A further note about local museums: even the ones that charge often have free days or evenings.
No-Cost Parks & Recreation
If parks are more to your liking, check out one of my favorites: Big Tree Park, about 15 miles from downtown in suburban Longwood. The park has a breath-taking cypress tree known as the "Senator." Why bother with this particular tree? At age 3,500 or so, it's one of the oldest in America. And at almost 140 feet tall, it's also one of the largest. The park is open daily from 8 am to sunset.
Downtown Orlando has its own Big Tree Park, (407/788-0405) which lives up to its name with a variety of large oak trees at Thornton Avenue between Marks and Weber streets.
If you're into flea markets and happen to be here on a weekend, the area's premier adventure is Renninger's Flea & Farmer's Market ( 352/383-3141) on US 441, near Mount Dora, about 25 miles and light years from bustling Orlando. The picturesque, quaint old Florida town likes to say it is grateful to be away from the area's major highways. It also hosts a variety of free festivals throughout the year.
If you're into hiking, you might check out the Florida Trail Association, Central Florida Chapter ( 877/HIKE-FLA), which has several excursions each month. These range from historical walks to trail maintenance trips to beach walks. And don't forget the beach, of course. Locals in Orlando usually are divided between those who prefer the more raucous Daytona Beach and those who opt for generally laidback New Smyrna Beach, both of which are no more than an hour's drive and along the Atlantic Ocean.
Another choice is Melbourne Beach, which is the place to go to surf or watch others looking for the perfect wave. There are also turtle watches and, keep in mind that your trips here may not be limited to hours of sunshine. Deserted beaches at night are perfect places for stargazing in the big Central Florida sky. And if you're fortunate enough to chance upon a nighttime storm in the ocean, it's a sight that dwarfs man-made fireworks.
Other Free Diversions
If you get to the Melbourne area in Brevard County, home of the space program adjacent to Orlando, you might stop in the Liberty Bell Memorial Museum ( 321/727-1776). More than three centuries of American history and culture are spread out here, including a full-size replica of the Liberty Bell, model warships and airplanes, clothing and a gallery of U.S. flags.
If you thought taxi cabs or car rentals were pricey, it might surprise you to find out you can get around for free, at least in downtown Orlando, via the LYMMO Bus. Board it at the Orange County Courthouse and visit the well-stoked local library. Jump on the bus for a ride back to the courthouse, where you can take an elevator to the top for the view.
One final footnote: If you're willing to go through a sales presentation, various timeshare operators in the area offer free tickets to Walt Disney World and other attractions. The positive part is that the pitches, which are generally not aggressive, often take only about 90 minutes, and children are usually welcome.
But that's another story!
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.